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It’s a good idea to know what the Tennessee Open Records Act says before making a records request

Tennessee state law required all state and local governments/agencies/public entities to adopt open records policies by July 1, 2017.  The Blount County Sheriff’s Office, Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority and Industrial Development Board of Blount County (IDB) adopted policies that are separate from the general policy adopted by the commission which covers the rest of county government.

My first two records requests made under these new local policies shows some compliance issues, lack of understanding of the opens records law and difficulty in being able to view records.

Request for copies of meeting minutes
I made a request to Bryan Daniels of the Blount Partnership/SMTDA/IDB and the Cities of Alcoa & Maryville, Tennessee (IDB) for copies of SMTDA and IDB meeting minutes.  These are typed records; therefore, one would reasonably think that the meeting minutes should be made available electronically.  In the 21st century these meeting minutes should be available online at no cost.  The Blount County Commission makes its meeting minutes readily available online for free.

Daniels responded, writing that copies of the meeting minutes would be provided in paper form and told me that I (Tona Monroe) could be charged up to $100 for the copies.  With such a large potential cost estimate, I modified my request asking instead for copies of the newly adopted open records policies for the SMTDA and the IDB.  You can read the new policies by clicking the links.

Open records policies not provided willfully
Daniels did not respond to my request and follow up emails pertaining to the open records policies.  I had to write the Office of Open Records Counsel (OORC) in the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office, requesting their assistance in obtaining the policies.  Daniels never did provide the open records policies directly.  The OORC sent me the open records policies.  These policies should also be available online.

Think about Daniel’s response to an elected official tasked with the fiduciary responsibility of looking out for you, the taxpaying citizens of Blount County.  He wanted up to $100 to provide copies of meeting minutes and denied providing the open records policies.  Failure to respond constitutes denial under state law.

10-7-503 (3) Failure to respond to the request as described in subdivision (a)(2) shall constitute a denial and the person making the request shall have the right to bring an action as provided in § 10-7-505.

This isn’t the first time that he has treated county commissioners less than professionally.

Request to inspect meeting minutes
With such an absurdly high monetary amount estimate and with Daniels’ failure to respond to my simple request for the open records policies, I went to Blount Partnership (BP)/Chamber of Commerce building to request to inspect the meeting meetings for the IDB and SMTDA. I had already emailed Daniels the time frames for the meeting minutes that I wanted to see but I was made to fill out a form and had to schedule a time to come back and see the records.

Tennessee law: No form required to inspect records
State law prohibits governmental entities from requiring you to fill out a form to inspect public records, yet that is what I required to do in order to see the meeting minutes of the SMTDA and IDB.

TCA 10-7-503 (7)  (A)  (i) A governmental entity shall not require a written request or assess a charge to view a public record unless otherwise required by law.

Viewing open records policies and meeting minutes should be easy but this process was not.

County’s Public Records Request Coordinator (PRRC) denied my request
PRRC Jackie Glenn denied my records request to look at the records of information technology (IT) firms and recycling records in the Purchasing Office, saying it wasn’t detailed enough.  After a couple of back and forth emails letting her know that my request wasn’t broad, she then made me schedule a time to inspect the records.  That became an issue as well.

I was finally able to see the records, with all of 40 minutes notice for the appointment, when I emailed the PRRC the state law on records being available for inspection.

TCA 10-7-503.  Records open to public inspection — Schedule of reasonable charges — Costs.

   (2)  (A) All state, county and municipal records shall, at all times during business hours, which for public hospitals shall be during the business hours of their administrative offices, be open for personal inspection by any citizen of this state, and those in charge of the records shall not refuse such right of inspection to any citizen, unless otherwise provided by state law.

      (B) The custodian of a public record or the custodian’s designee shall promptly make available for inspection any public record not specifically exempt from disclosure. In the event it is not practicable for the record to be promptly available for inspection, the custodian shall, within seven (7) business days:

         (i) Make the information available to the requestor;

When I actually was able to view the records, there was only one IT firm file folder and one recycling folder in the Purchasing Office, along with some purchase orders, showing that it wasn’t a large request.

If you’re going to do a records request, it’s a good idea to be familiar with the open records act and insist the local officials comply with the law.

Records Policies:
Blount County Public Records Policy
IDB
SMTDA

Patrick England announces candidacy for Blount County Sheriff

Patrick England issued the following statement about his candidacy for Blount County Sheriff.

“When my football career came to an end due to an injury my senior* year, I went from being a team player on the field to being a team player in the community serving the citizens of Blount County as an officer with the Blount County Sheriff’s Office.

As a life long Blount Countian, with 23 years of law enforcement experience, I understand what servant leadership means to the citizens of Blount County. With an Associates Degree in Criminal Justice and Bachelors Degree in Organizational Leadership, I am well suited to provide the improvements in public safety  that this community is looking for. As your sheriff, I will put an end to jail expansion that could turn our beautiful mountain community in the next Brushy Mountain prison and save the taxpayers the burden of paying for an expensive, unnecessary jail expansion.

Blount County has been a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family but many have expressed concern about the direction this county is headed. I look forward to restoring confidence in the servant leadership that a sheriff offers the community. That is why I am offering myself as a candidate who will limit himself to two terms against a 28 year incumbent career politician.”

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*Update – Correction: The original press release stated that Mr. England was injured during his senior year but a correction was issued stating that he was injured during his junior year.

England’s campaign website is https://england4sheriff.com/

Jim Vesper not impressed with officials honoring each other over “clean” audits

This morning I (Tona Monroe) received the following text about mine and Karen Miller’s standing apart from politicians honoring other politicians, in an election year, for receiving “clean” audits at last night’s commission meeting.

“I appreciated you standing apart with Karen last night. The self-congratulations show the other commissioners held last night was embarrassing.  Audited returns do not reflect monies well spent, or assets well managed! I wish every commissioner had your integrity and respect for their constituents wallets.  Blessings to you my friend.”

Jim Vesper – Blount County citizen and businessman

Commissioner Karen Miller and I voted against honoring elected officials and department heads for receiving clean audits.  Mr. Vesper is spot on.  These audits do not reflect the quality of spending or management of assets.  These audits are more a reflection of following accounting standards.  Money can be wasted on many things, but if it is properly accounted for it usually won’t result in an audit finding.

Keep in mind that the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office gave the sheriff and county a free pass for the sheriff signing the federal inmates contract without first obtaining commission approval possibly because its auditors hadn’t caught it the entire time (well over a decade) the contracts have been in effect.  The Comptroller’s Office also gave the mayor, finance director and county a free pass for the $2 million that the mayor and finance director claimed authority to assign.  The mayor and finance director lacked the authority to express the county’s intent with that $2 million “assignment.” Only the commission had the authority to assign those funds with the county’s intent.  The Comptroller’s Office chose not to recognize the mayor and finance director’s $2 million assignments but failed to mention their actions in the audit reports.  Even two failures to properly prove authority did not result in audit findings.

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office seems to be handing clean audits out like candy.  It’s important that the citizens of Blount County, and ultimately Tennessee, understand the limited scope of these audits and that they don’t reflect the quality of spending.  Clean audits do not mean that elected officials are good stewards of your taxpayer monies.

Important questions you need to ask about the salaries of elected officials before voting in the local May 1st and state and federal August 2nd 2018 primary elections

State mandated minimum salaries and additional pay supplements for local elected officials vs what taxpayers are making

When you look at important economic indicators such as median household income and average annual income, Blount County taxpayers haven’t fared well in recent years.  When adjusted for inflation, 2014 numbers show that average pay in Blount County actually dropped and that household income averages a double digit drop.

The State of Tennessee mandates very generous salaries for elected officials that are 2, 3 and 4 times what the average Tennessee taxpayer is making.  I (Tona Monroe) have written the state legislature for a couple of years on this matter but this matter has largely fallen on deaf ears when it comes to taking action.  A few lawmakers have agreed with me that the mandated minimums are too high but none have taken action to provide reform.

You can view the state mandated minimum salaries for local elected officials here.
2018-2019  2017-2018   2016-2017  2015-2016  2014-2015  2013-2014
2012-2013   2010-2011  2009-2010  2008-2009  2007-2008  2006-2007

This figures show huge increases to the base pay for local elected officials being mandated by state law.  Despite being paid double and triple, and in the case of judges almost quadruple what the average taxpayer is making, 4 of these local elected officials are receiving pay supplements above the already large state mandated minimums.  Blount County taxpayers are paying $96,717 more than state minimum for the circuit court clerk, highway superintendent, sheriff and mayor.  It’s obvious these people don’t feel the same economic pain that many Blount Countians are feeling.

2 important primary elections will be held this year.  The local government primary election will be May 1, 2018 and the state and federal primary election will be held August 2, 2018.  All office holders elected in partisan elections are Republicans in Blount County.  There isn’t a single Democrat or independent in office in Blount County, excluding the school board which has nonpartisan elections.  Thus, it is highly likely that all upcoming offices, excluding the school board, will be decided in the primary elections.  If you wait to vote in November, you will miss your best opportunities to have an impact on who governs at the local and state levels.  There will be no county elections in November and only state and federal general elections occur in November.

The May 1 and August 2 primary elections provide opportunities for you to clean house of these state and local officials who refuse to hold the line on these outrageous salaries.  Only Commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and myself have voted to cut the pay of these 4 elected officials down to the state minimum, which is already much higher than it should be.

Questions to ask before heading to the polls on May 1 and August 2:
1) Why have local elected officials refused to cut the pay of these officials to the state mandated minimums?
2) Why have the state legislators continued funding huge increases for elected officials?
3) Why did Jerome Moon try to lead the commission to believe that these pay supplements weren’t optional?

Please consider these questions before casting your votes in the May 1 and August 2 elections.

East Tennessee Index 2014 figures for median household income:

What does this measure?
Median household income, adjusted for inflation. Half of households earn below the median, and half are above.

Why is this important?
Median household income is a gauge of overall economic health of the region and the financial resources of households.

How is our region performing?
In 2010-14, median household income in the region was $45,100, slightly higher than the state ($44,600) but lower than the nation ($53,500). Among local counties, median household income was highest in Loudon ($50,600) and Knox ($47,500) and lowest in Union ($36,000) and Monroe ($37,200). The region, state, and nation all saw their median income fall by double digits from 2000 to 2010-14 (down 12% in the region, 14% in the state, and 10% in the nation). Median income fell much faster in the region from 2005-09 to 2010-14 than in the nation and state (16% decrease in the region compared to a 6% decrease for the state and the nation). Among the counties, median household incomes decreased most from 2000 to 2010-14 in Sevier, Monroe and Blount (all 14%). Union experienced the smallest rate of decline (7%), but still has the lowest median household income in the region.

Notes about the data
Figures are presented in 2014 dollars. The multiyear figures are from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The bureau combined five years of responses to the survey to provide estimates for smaller geographic areas and increase the precision of its estimates. The survey provides data on characteristics of the population that used to be collected only during the decennial census.

ETIndex.org 2014 figures for average annual salary:

What does this measure?
The average annual salary in a region in a given year, adjusted for inflation.

Why is this important?
Salaries are a gauge of overall economic health and a measure of the degree to which employees are sharing in the prosperity of a community. They also indicate the vitality of a region and its ability to compete and attract workers.

How is our region performing?
In 2014, the region’s average salary was $43,000, below the average for the state ($45,200) and the nation ($51,400). Since 2000, the region’s average salary increased by 6%, on par with growth nationally and but below statewide (7%). Roane County’s average annual pay grew by 26% over the same time period, more than any other county, while average salary fell in Blount and Sevier counties over that period (both less than 1% respectively). Between 2013 and 2014, the region’s average annual salary increased by 1%, on par with the state increase.

Notes about the data
Data presented in 2014 dollars.

November 2017 Commission Report

Commission meeting
The agenda was lengthy this month, containing 17 items under new business (one added at the last minute) as well as items under the consent calendar and elections, appointments and confirmations.  Some of the items won’t be covered in this commission report but you can ask any questions that you may have about those items in the comments section below.  Commissioners Dave Bennett and Gary Farmer were absent.

Consent calendar
The consent calendar contained a resolution titled “A RESOLUTION HONORING ALL VETERANS AND THE EMPLOYEES OF THE BLOUNT COUNTY VETERANS AFFAIRS OFFICE FOR THEIR OUTSTANDING CONTRIBUTIONS.”  In the September 2017 Commission Report, I explained why I frequently vote no on these resolutions honoring people.  I abstained on this vote, which is something I rarely do.  Many of our veterans are worthy of honor, which is why I abstained rather than voting no.

While the veterans are listed first in the title of the resolution, they are barely mentioned in the resolution.  The resolution is mostly about the staff of the Blount County Veterans Affairs Office.  This resolution really diminishes our veterans.  Once again politicians were using their political office to honor government employees.

Some speak highly of Veterans Service Officer Nathan Weinbaum.  That’s good that there are people who are happy with the job he is doing.  However, he is being well paid for this job.  His salary is substantially more than the average taxpayer in Blount County.  Furthermore, he works in air an conditioned building and has great fringe benefits.  He is already being rewarded by the taxpayers with the generous salary and benefits that he receives which exceed more than the majority live on.  The people of Blount County are free to honor him anytime they so chose, without the Blount County Commission telling them to.

Donation for employee recognition
Item F4 on the agenda was a resolution to approve spending $1,500 donated to pay for a recognition luncheon for Blount County Sheriff’s Office employees.  This is a much better way to honor those who people feel are doing good for the community, than the resolutions that the county commission passes.  Actions like this speak louder than the commission’s words on paper.

Highway Department employee handbook – who has authority to approve it?
The commission was asked to approve updates to the Blount County Highway Department Employee Supplement Handbook.  I questioned why the commission was voting on this when Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick has authority under TCA 5-23-103 to adopt a policy without commission approval.

TCA 5-23-103(c)(1) says:

“Any county official whose employees are governed by the base personnel policies adopted by the county legislative body shall have the right to adopt separate base personnel policies applicable to the employees of such official’s office by filing approved base personnel policies with the county legislative body in the same manner as set out in subsection (a), at the following times.”

Blount County government appears to have an authority problem.  The sheriff did not bring the federal inmates contract to the county commission for approval before signing the contract.  Yet, the commission is approving policies that state law says office holders have the authority to adopt without commission approval.  If state law says an office holder has the authority to act, then commission should leave the responsibility to the office holder.

Fireworks ban repeal request
The possession, sale, manufacture, storing and use of pyrotechnics (fireworks) was made illegal in Blount County under a 1949 private act.  Punishment can be severe, with fines ranging from $50-400 and/or jail time ranging from 30 days to 11 months and 29 days.

You can legally buy fireworks in Loudon County but you can’t bring them into Blount County legally.  People routinely do this and the law isn’t being enforced.  As such, the law either needs to enforced, repealed or amended to something more reasonable.

A letter from Blount County Sheriff James Berrong explains that the main complaint his office receives from fireworks is related to noise.  Berrong’s suggestion is for the fireworks ordinance be rewritten to prohibit the use of fireworks between the hours of 11 PM through 7 AM.

The resolution requests that the Tennessee General Assembly repeal the private act.  Chairman Moon declared that a 2/3rds majority of 14 votes was needed, and the resolution was postponed because of the uncertainty of whether a simple majority or a 2/3rds majority is required for a resolution requesting repeal of a private act.  One has to wonder why Ron French, who questioned the number of required votes, didn’t know the answer since he is in the 4th year of his 4th term as a county commissioner.

Commission Mike Caylor topped himself this month by flying off the handle and pointing at Mike Akard after Akard spoke in favor of the resolution.  Unfortunately that the commission video doesn’t zoom in close enough for the citizens to see Caylor’s disrespectful actions.

Purple Heart Highway
The commission passed a resolution supporting the designation of US Highway 321 through Blount County the Military Order Purple Heart Highway.  The title of the resolution shows how sloppy the wording of resolutions can be.

The title reads, “RESOLUTION NAMING U.S. HIGHWAY 321/LAMAR ALEXANDER PARKWAY FROM LOUDON COUNTY/BLOUNT COUNTY LINE NORTH TO BLOUNT COUNTY/SEVIER COUNTY LINE THE MILITARY ORDER PURPLE HEART HIGHWAY.”  The commission wasn’t actually renaming the 321 but rather showing support for the designation.  The title of a resolution should reflect what the commission is actually doing.  The title should have used the word requesting or supporting instead of making it read that the road would actually be given a new name.

Interlocal agreement between Blount County and the City of Friendsville
Item F14 is a resolution to approve an interlocal agreement between the county and Friendsville.  The City of Friendsville is in my commission district but no one from the City of Friendsville contacted to discuss this matter before bringing it to the commission.  I learned of the agreement when I read the Agenda Committee packet.

The agreement requires the Blount County Sheriff’s Office to enforce city ordinances that will be adjudicated in Blount County General Sessions Court.  The agreement says, “this agreement shall extend until such time as the City requests and expresses their intent pursuant to the applicable statutes that their designated municipal ordinance is no longer to be prosecuted by the Sheriff and General Sessions Court.”  This only mentions what happens if the city wants out of the agreement.

The resolution says, “this Interlocal Agreement is necessary and required by T.C.A. § 12-9-401 to provide for the appropriate court costs and costs of enforcement.”  The fines collected go to the city, according to state law.  The court costs are $177 for each city ordinance violation and are paid into the county’s general fund, except for processing fees collected by the clerk.

I inquired what would happen if the county needed to increase its costs for enforcement.  No answer was provided.  As such, I didn’t think it wise to approve something saying that the county would do something until Friendsville no longer wanted to continue, without knowing how the county could increase court costs if needed to cover its expenses.

Duty to report law
The county commission approved a resolution requesting that the Tennessee General Assembly enact legislation “to require a person to report a person in distress by calling 911 or a first responder.”  This resolution is dangerous to liberty for many reasons.

While the resolution doesn’t mention the word crime, this is a request to make anyone who doesn’t call 911 (the government) or a first responder a criminal.  A law without a penalty is usually just a suggestion.  We need to be very careful about what we allow government to require us to report or be penalized if we don’t.  If you see something, say something resulted in this family’s dog being killed by government.

Distress isn’t defined in the resolution.  Thus, the commission didn’t know precisely what it asking the state legislature to outlaw.

Without a clear definition of what constitutes distress, it’s possible to envision a scenario where you’re driving down the road one day minding your own business and harming no one, pass a car on the side of the road and find yourself charged with a crime a few days later because you didn’t report the person inside the vehicle who was distressed.  You could have been recorded with a government surveillance camera or an I-phone and you would then have to explain to a judge why you didn’t call 911.

The second whereas clause says, “a person who knows that another person is exposed to great physical harm and in need of assistance, and can give assistance without danger or peril to himself, should report the person in distress by calling 911 or a first responder.”  This doesn’t appear to address those instances where the person rending aid is successful in resolving the problem.  Why should someone who is rendering assistance be required to report their own help if it successful without further medical intervention?

What if someone is fearful of the government or medical practitioners?  Is it right to report someone’s problem to 911, government or emergency responders if they don’t want their situation reported?  What if the person being required to report is fearful of those they would be required to report to?  Not everyone views assistance from the police, government and allopathic medicine practitioners as being productive or amicable.  What if someone doesn’t think that reporting a distressed person to 911, government or emergency responders is the best course of action?  This appears to request that individual judgement be criminalized.

This matter stems from the disappearance of Eric Ashby, a former Tennessee resident who moved to Colorado to hunt for a “chest containing treasure fit for a pirate,” that is thought to be buried in New Mexico.  It is bizarre that the Blount County Commission was being asked to vote on a resolution asking for state law in Tennessee because someone from Tennessee moved to Colorado to hunt for a modern day pirate’s treasure that may be in the state of New Mexico.

Ashby disappeared after his raft capsized in the Arkansas River.  Those with Ashby on the treasure hunting trip made it safely back to land but Ashby did not.  None of those who returned safely reported Ashby’s emergency.  Thus, the commission was asked to support the enactment of a new law because those with Ashby didn’t call police for help.

However that isn’t the whole story.  It turns out that a bystander who witnessed the incident did report it to the police.  Thus, it seems likely that the law Ashby’s family and friends are requesting would not have saved his life, unfortunately.  I offer condolences to Ashby’s family and friends for his tragic loss of life but we don’t need to pass another law that could make criminals out of Tennesseans when it likely wouldn’t have saved Ashby’s life if it had been the law in Colorado.

Up next:
The commission will be filling the Tennessee Senate seat vacated by Doug Overbey who was appointed the U.S. attorney for East Tennessee.

May 1, 2018 Local Election Issues

Harry Grothjahn of Truth Radio AM 1470 invited me to speak on his Sunday morning radio show to discuss important issues that you need to know about before voting in the upcoming May 1, 2018 local government primary election.  The interview was recorded so that you can listen to it and the slide show presentation is attached for your information and review.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of important local issues.  This is a good starting point in becoming informed for the upcoming May 1st primary election.

Let freedom ring!
Tona Monroe
Blount County Commissioner

May 1, 2017 local government primary election issues slides

http://tncitylinktv.com/archive/commissioner-monroes-most-important-blount-county-commission-issues-in-the-last-4-years/

August 2017 Commission Report

Commission meeting
Commissioners Gary Farmer, Kenneth Melton and Steve Samples were absent.

Last month, the commission approved a contract for architectural services with Michael Brady Incorporated (MBI) without also approving a budget amendment to pay for the contract.  This month the commission approved the funding for the contract with the architectural firm as well as funding for public relations and a project manager.

Yes, Blount County government thinks that it needs a Ministry of Propaganda to tell you why they’ve hired an architect for the jail.  Unless you’ve been living in the forest you know that Blount County, like any other county in this nation, has a drug problem stemming from the use of pain pills and street drugs.  It’s really a shame that the taxpayers are having to pay to be told that there is an opioid and drug problem in the community.

The memo in the commission packet from the Blount County Purchasing Department, Human Resources and Finance Department says that the contract was approved by the Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP).  However, it was not approved by the BCCP.

The last time that the BCCP met was in March to discuss the purchasing agent’s selection of MBI.  The agenda for the meeting says, “Discussion and possible action regarding presentation regarding the solicitation and request for qualifications for architectural planning and/or design services and/or programming services for Blount County.”  There is no mention of a contract in the agenda or the unofficial meeting minutes of this BCCP meeting.  The minutes are unofficial because the BCCP has not met since this March 28, 2017 meeting and therefore has not taken any vote to approve the meeting minutes.

The contract with MBI is time stamped on the bottom with a date of May 24, 2017, which is almost two months after the BCCP March 28 meeting.  Why would the purchasing agent, human resources director and director of accounts and budgets (finance director) sign a memo with a false statement?  Why would their boss Mayor Ed Mitchell let them?

The cost to the taxpayers is $244,723 which includes $188,000 for the MBI contract.  Only Commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I (Tona Monroe) voted against this.

The resolution says that the monies came from funds “Assigned for Public Safety.”  Many remember when I found that Sheriff James Lee Berrong and Mayor Ed Mitchell had a $2 million jail plan in Tennessee Corrections Institute Board of Control meeting minutes.  The commission is the body who has the authority to express the county’s intent by assigning monies in the general fund.  The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office did not recognize the assignments of $2 million for public safety.

The bigger and potentially more expensive picture is that “Blount County has not set a specific scope or budget for this project,” as stated under Article 1.12 of the MBI contract.

Grant process dysfunctional
The commission was asked to approve five grants.  The deadline for two of these grants, one for juvenile court and the other for the animal shelter, had already passed.  While these two grants had already been written, neither provided the commission with copies of the actual grants.  The juvenile court grant worksheet included a memo about the grant while the animal shelter only provided the grant worksheet.  It seems reasonable that any department/office wanting the commission to approve a grant after the deadline would include a copy of the grant along with the worksheet.

Road projects
The commission approved a $360,791 increase to the state aid account of the highway department budget.  According to a memo from Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick, Tennessee Department of Transport (TDOT) provided the funds for replacement of tiles/culverts on state highways.  The state aid account is now $1,082,000 for fiscal year 2018.

The commission approved TDOT’s proposal for the relocated Alcoa Highway.  While there was a public meeting in the City of Alcoa about this proposal in May, this was the first time that this commission was provided anything on the proposal.  It would have been nice to have been given more time to study the matter and to hear from the citizens on something this important.  Most seemed to be unaware that the commission was considering this matter.  I voted against this because of the short time frame to study the matter and because of the lack of information about other possibilities for Alcoa Highway.  Commissioners Jamie Daly and Karen Miller also voted no while the rest of the commissioners present voted yes.

A meeting was called to approve applying for federal funds to make improvements to Morganton Road.  This road has long been in need of repair.  People in the 1st, 6th and 7th districts have expressed their concerns about the road to me.  This has been one of the top 10 issues that I hear the most about from those in the community.

This a good start but more work is needed.  Some are upset that this project does not come further into the county.  There have been concerns expressed about the City of Maryville annexing part of Morganton Road.

According to the mayor, the commission approved $4 million for improvements to Morganton Road in 2006 but those funds were never spent for that purpose.  No one that I’ve spoken with seems to know why this money was never spent.

This project runs into 2023.  You can read more about it here.

Accounting and financial software
The commission approved a 7 year, $2.334M contract for a Financial Management Information System (FMIS).  This Services as a Software (SaaS) agreement is with Tyler Technologies.  The estimated cost for implementation is $293,470.50 and the annual recurring fees are $299,945.00 throughout the 7 year contract.

When the Kronos time keeping, payroll and HR software system was presented to the commission, a business case was made for savings through staff reductions.  Those projected savings never materialized.  According to a June 22, 2017 email from Finance Director Randy Vineyard, “there have been no retirements or departures since implementation in General County.”  He did write that there could be possible staff reductions in the future as “as staff retirements arise.”

No business case for savings was made for the purchase of Tyler Technologies software.  The commission was told that the current financial system was antiquated, unsecure, needed to be replaced with a modern system and that Tyler Technologies is the best fit for the county.  The commission not given anything to support the assertion that this company’s software is the best fit for Blount County.

The commission is often asked to vote on what the bureaucrats want without being given any information on comparable products.  With an annual reoccurring expense of nearly $300K, it would have been helpful to have seen what other companies had to offer.  Other companies might offer a bit less than a competitor but at a much lower price while still providing what the county needs.  I don’t know if there were any better deals or fits for the county because I wasn’t given any information on any other products.

The memo to the commission is from the county’s program manager for IT Abhijit Verekar of Avèro Advisors.  He is being sued in federal court by a previous employer.

Considering the lack of information about comparable products, I thought it best to vote no to this long term costly commitment.  Commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly and Karen Miller also voted no.

Up next:  The end of August marks the end of the 3rd year of this four year commission term.  What would you like to see me focus on during the next year?

It’s also time to give serious consideration to running for local office.  In November, candidates can begin picking up petitions to run in the May 1, 2018 primary election.  That will be here before you know it.  Don’t let the opportunity slip past you.

In the words of a great American:

“We are not weak, if we make proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power… The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.” Patrick Henry

Even if you don’t want to run, you can begin talking to others about running and support good candidates who do run.

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” — Edmund Burke

July 2017 Commission Report

Information Technology (IT) Committee meeting
The IT Committee heard from Abhijit Verekar (AV) on the status of Blount County’s ongoing IT project updates.  AV has served as the project manger for the multiyear IT project.  However, this time he was the project manager from his own newly started company Avero Advisors, rather than Mindboard Inc (Mindboard).  If you’re thinking this seems odd, you may be right.

AV and Mindboard Inc. were embroiled in a lawsuit with AV’s previous employer RNR Consulting when the county commission approved a contract with Mindboard Inc.  Some serious allegations were made in that lawsuit.  If you aren’t familiar with the situation please click on these links and read about the matter before proceeding with the rest of this report.

New company not brought to the commission for approval
Only one of the references listed in response to the Request for Qualifications (RFQ) provided by Mindboard had a budget over $60,000 while the county’s IT budget was more than 22 times that amount.  It didn’t make good sense to hire Mindboard because of these serious allegations and too much uncertainty about Mindboard handling such a large budget.

Purchasing Agent Katie Branham-Kerr defended her choice in early 2016 by saying that the rates that Mindboard offered the county were 20% lower than other contract rates but nothing was provided to the commission to support this statement.  When I (Commissioner Tona Monroe) asked Branham-Kerr why the county was switching from Mindboard to Avero Advisors, she said the county would save about 30% from what it was paying Mindboard.  It makes one wonder why Mindboard was chosen when she could find another firm to do the work cheaper the following year.  The county’s purchasing process leaves much to be desired.

The county hasn’t actually terminated its contract with Mindboard.  Both Mindboard. and AV’s company Avero Advisors are providing IT services to Blount County government.  The contract with Avero is set up on a yearly basis, renewing annually at the start of each fiscal year.  The arrangement means that the Avero contract doesn’t have to be brought to the commission for a vote on the matter because it doesn’t extend beyond the current fiscal year.  However, a contract that annually renews automatically, unless being canceled, should be required to be approved by the county commission.  This is a reform needed at the state level.

I asked Branham-Kerr if AV was working for both companies and she said no.  She said that the county had received a signed agreement from Mindboard Inc., releasing AV from contract with Mindboard.  You can read the Change of Relationship Agreement here.

Under Terms and Conditions it says:

“1. Contract Termination.
The parties hereby agree that the Agreement has been and is hereby terminated in all respects, provided however that the provisions of Sections 5 shall survive with the exception that Employee is permitted to contract with Blount County, TN and Mindboard will not seek to enforce Section 5 with respect to Employee contracting with Blount County, TN.”

Section 5 is not stated in the agreement but it appears to refer to a non-compete clause in the terminated employment contract between Mindboard and AV.  Thus, it appears that Mindboard allowed AV to contract with Blount County but not any other customer that Mindboard may have.  If so, why?

Despite this large sum of money, people are expressing their dissatisfaction with the county’s new website and software system used for commission and committee meetings.  The new Granicus program isn’t as user friendly as the older, simpler system.

The IT Committee had no say in the selection of the new software system or website.  I have and continue to wonder why there is even an IT Committee since the Mayor’s Office along with the purchasing agent and these IT firms are making the decisions how to spend your money.

Over $3 million has been budgeted in recent years for Mayor Ed Mitchell, Mindboard Inc. and Avero Advisors to manage.  It is really a shame that there is so much dissatisfaction with the use of millions of your tax dollars.

Commission Meeting
Commissioners Mike Akard and Steve Samples were absent.  Once again, I was prohibited from asking questions at the monthly commission meeting.

Recycling convenience center – Failed leadership of Mayor Ed Mitchell
There is perhaps no greater example of the failure of Mayor Ed Mitchell’s leadership than with the way he has handled recycling in Blount County.  For those who are cheering the opening of a convenience center in the county, I encourage you to consider the history of recycling in Blount County because we now have less recycling sites with the county providing recycling than before the county decided to provide recycling.

Spectra recycling announced that in May it would be closing its recycling location on Robert C Jackson that was open to the public.  After learning about this, I called the owner Mr. Steve Dixon.  He told me that I was the only elected official to call him to find out why he had closed the recycling convenience center.  After I shared this with the Big Springs Community Club at its monthly meeting, the other commissioner from the 7th district went and met with Mr. Dixon after he had already voted to spend taxpayer money for a convenience center.

Mr. Dixon shared with me how previous mayors had met with him and were appreciative of his free recycling services that he provided to the citizens of Blount County.  He shared that this changed with the Mitchell administration and the new Purchasing Agent Katie Branham-Kerr.

In 2015, the Purchasing Department issued Request for Proposal (RFP) 2015-2372 to provide recycling services for county buildings.  Spectra had been providing free recycling to the county government, in addition to free recycling convenience centers throughout the county.  Spectra was the only one to bid that RFP.

Spectra had provided free recycling to the county government up to that point but the recycling market is dynamic and hadn’t been profitable; therefore, it had asked for a small trip fee to cover expenses.  The cost would have been a few thousand dollars annually.

Then Purchasing Agent Theresa Johnson, who was later demoted to assistant purchasing agent, told Mr. Dixon that she would have to take the matter to Mayor Ed Mitchell.  Mr. Dixon waited about a year thinking that Spectra would be awarded a contract but when he called the new Purchasing Agent Katie Branham-Kerr he was told that the county would not been awarding a contract for RFP 2015-2372.  During this year Spectra continued providing free recycling services to the county government.

When I tried to inquire why this RFP was not awarded, Commissioner Ron French declared a point of order saying that it was 2017 not 2015 and Chairman Jerome Moon declared me out of order.  This prohibited me from making the point that perhaps this matter had something to do with why Spectra was no longer offering recycling and inquiring why Spectra didn’t respond to the current RFP 2016-2456 (issued in 2017).  The 2017 RFP only had 2 responses.  Commissioners looking out for the taxpayers should want to know why Spectra, a local business, did not respond to a recycling RFP.

Mr. Dixon shared with me that he did not know that a new RFP had been issued.  This is alarming because I reviewed the 2015 RFP and found that the county reached out to potential bidders but did not appear to make the same effort with the 2017 RFP.  I asked the purchasing agent who the county reached out to on the 2017 RFP and received this response:

—–Original Message—–
From: “Katie Branham-Kerr” <kbranham@blounttn.org>
Sent: Friday, September 8, 2017 4:24pm
To: tona@breezeair.net
Cc: “Jackie Cooper” <jcooper@blounttn.org>
Subject: Fwd: Question about Recycling

Mrs. Monroe,

       Please see attached.
       Regards,
 
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Lauri Bell <lbell@blounttn.org>
Date: Thu, Sep 7, 2017 at 8:48 AM
Subject: Re: Question about Recycling
To: Katie Branham-Kerr <kbranham@blounttn.org>

On 6/7/17 the invitation to bid (ITB) for Blount County’s recycling collection center was issued on Purchasing’s website via IonWave with registered suppliers being automatically notified of the posting via the website, a Legal Notice was posted in the The Daily Times, as well as on the bulletin board outside of the Purchasing Department.  I am only aware of verbal communication with Waste Connections of Tennessee and West Rock.
Finally, attached is the email string with Avero regarding pricing.

On Thu, Sep 7, 2017 at 8:07 AM, Katie Branham-Kerr <kbranham@blounttn.org> wrote:

Please review Mrs. Monroe’s email and let me know who we reached out to individually regarding the recycling bid.
 
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: <tona@breezeair.net>
Date: Mon, Sep 4, 2017 at 10:31 AM
Subject: Question about Recycling
To: Katie Branham-Kerr <kbranham@blounttn.org>
Dear Katie,
In reviewing the recycling records, the purchasing office reached out to potential bidders, by email, in 2015 for recycling needs.  There wasn’t any record of that occurring this year.  Did your office reach out, by email or any other form of communication, to potential companies that might provide recycling services?
Also, I received 3 records from Jackie but didn’t receive the email that I asked be forwarded related to the hourly rates that you negotiated with AV.  Please forward that email to me.
Sincerely,
Tona

I have repeatedly asked the purchasing agent and Mayor’s Office why the 2015 recycling RFP was not awarded.  No explanation has been given.

At one time, Spectra was providing 12 free recycling sites throughout Blount County, not including the schools that it was providing free recycling services for.  Some of these recycling centers were open to the public 24/7/365.  The county’s convenience center will only be open 3 days a week.  Furthermore, recycling at the library will stop as well.

At one time Spectra was providing free recycling for the county at the location on McArthur Road where the new convenience center will be located.  Now the taxpayers will pay for part time recycling at this location and the 12 free recycling centers that the county once had are gone.  After speaking with Mr. Dixon at Spectra, I am firmly convinced that the county could have many more recycling centers throughout the county with more hours of operation for less money than the 3 day a week county operation that will be at McArthur Road.  This great loss to the community falls squarely on the shoulders of Mayor Ed Mitchell.  Blount County needs a mayor with private sector experience who can get things done without going to taxpayers for everything.

To make matters worse, the commission wasn’t provided with all the documentation pertaining to the contract.  The contract instrument says that the contract consists of 7 documents including: the Request for Proposal, the Instructions to Proponents, the Contractor’s Proposal, the General Specifications, the resolution of Blount County ordering or authorizing, the work and services contemplated herein, this instrument and any addenda or changes to the foregoing documents agreed to by the parties hereto.  The commission was only provided with the instrument and the authorizing resolution.  It’s possible that there were no amendments but the commission should have been told that no amendments exists if there were none.

I moved to postpone the matter until the next month so that the commission could be provided with all of the documentation.  The motion failed with only Commissioners Archie Archer, Shawn Carter, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voting to wait one month to be given all of the documentation prior to voting on the matter.  The commissioners who sponsored the resolution approving the contract have egg on their faces.  You should watch the commission meeting to see how some of them try defending why they brought a contract to the commission without having the entirety of the contract.  The purchasing agent said that the reason that some of the documents were not provided is because they weren’t yet finished.  However, that does not explain the failure to provide the RFP to the commission.

Commissioner Mike Caylor asked the mayor if he had done his due diligence on this matter.  Mitchell said he had.  Apparently Caylor was OK with not doing his due diligence as a county commissioner, to protect the taxpayers.

Most of the commissioners present took the Nancy Pelosi approach to government when they voted for something only to learn later what is in it.  Only Commissioners Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voted against approving a contract without having all of the documents available.

Jail architect contract approved without a budget amendment – discussion process seriously flawed
The commission approved a contract with Michael Brady Incorporated (MBI) for jail expansion/renovation (?) without knowing the full costs of what is being called the Criminal Justice Initiative (CJI).  Jerome Moon and the commissioners who follow his lead made hypocrites out of themselves with this issue because there was no budget amendment in the packet to pay for the contract.  Moon has insisted in the past that the commission appropriate money to pay for something prior to discuss what the money is actually being appropriated for.  Remember when I tried to move discussion of the budget ahead of setting the tax rate in 2015 and only the three women commissioners voted to discuss the budget first?

On this same agenda the commission voted to appropriate the money for the recycling contract before voting on the actual contract, which was not provided in its entirety.  Moon didn’t even want me discussing the recycling contract during the discussion time of the budget amendment that funded it.  The commission is expected to approve the money without first discussing the substance of the matter, the actual legal documents and impact those documents will have.  Doesn’t it make sense to discuss the substance of the matter before you spend the money to do it?  The discussion process is seriously flawed.

Commissioner Andy Allen pointed out that the contract was specific in the cost for this project.  It’s true that the cost of the architectural firm is in the contract.  However, the costs of the project are more than the MBI contract.  The commissioners weren’t told what the actual total costs of the CJI project would be.  Only commissioners Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voted against approving the contract.

Not satisfied due to the lack of information provided, I wrote Director of Accounts and Budgets Randy Vineyard for an explanation of the costs.  It turns out that he didn’t know either and wrote that due diligence for the CJI was not finished when the contract was presented to the commission.

“—–Original Message—–
From: “Randy Vineyard” <rvineyard@blounttn.org>
Sent: Monday, July 24, 2017 11:05am
To: tona@breezeair.net
Cc: “Marvin Mitchell” <emitchell@blounttn.org>, “James Berrong” <jberrong@bcso.com>, “Jarrod Millsaps” <jmillsaps@bcso.com>
Subject: Re: Funding for MBI contract

Commissioner,
The amendment has not been finalized because there are items likely to be recommended along with the MBI fees. Our due diligence is not yet completed.
That should be concluded in time for the August Budget Committee meeting.

Randy
Randy Vineyard, IOM
Blount County Finance Director

Support for the federal government’s war on poverty
The commission approved a resolution supporting federal government programs that were created as a part of the war on poverty.  Nearly everything that the federal government declares war on turns into an expensive failure.  The war on poverty may be the costliest “war” disaster of all.

All 21 Blount County Commissioners were elected and are in office as Republicans.  Only Commissioner Karen Miller and I voted against this, showing that most Republicans aren’t serious about cutting wasteful spending or eliminating failed government programs.  Furthermore, most of the commissioners do not seem to honor their oaths of office because there is no authority for the federal government’s war of poverty authorized in the United States Constitution.

Federal COPS grant approved after deadline
The commission was presented with a USDOJ Community Oriented Policing Service (COPS) grant application after the grant deadline had already passed.  The grant will pay for 75% of the salaries and benefits for 6 officers for 3 years.  The grant does not pay for equipping the officers with laptops, uniforms, weapons, or cars.  The commission was told that the county would be required to keep these positions, after the grant money runs out.

Commissioner Caylor seemed indigent that Commissioner Daly would even inquire about the county having to pay for the officers after the grant money ran out.  He said it was a savings but there is no savings.  Federal money is taxpayer money.  At the rate that the federal government is borrowing money, your children and grandchildren may be forced to pay interest to foreign investors in China and Saudi Arabia on these officers because the federal government is not paying its (our) bills now.

While the program goal and objectives were including in the grant application guide, the commission was provided no data to show that six more officers will actually improve safety in the community.  Only commissioners Daly, Miller and I voted no this grant.

Up next:
July was a doozie.  The lackadaisical attitude of several on the commission should give pause to those concerned about their community.  If you want to see better government, then seriously considering becoming that better government by either running for local office or supporting good candidates who will ensure that due diligence is done prior to each vote of the commission.

Many links on this site are broken due to county’s new website

Blount County government recently launched a new website.  As a result, many of the links to the Blount County government website (www.blounttn.org) found on this website (www.bcpublicrecord.com) will no longer work because the files are now in different locations.  If you read past articles and find that the links aren’t working, there is a good starting point page to look for the references found throughout this site. Please start here: http://www.blounttn.org/926/Meeting-Archives

Meeting Archives

Commission Meetings

Budget and Finance Committee Meetings

Agenda and Work Session Meetings

Insurance Committee Meetings

HR Committee Meetings

Blount County’s YouTube Channel containing meeting recordings

June 2017 Commission Report

“Last year we said, ‘Things can’t go on like this,’ and they didn’t, they got worse.”  Will Rogers

Annual Budget
Traditionally, each June, the Blount County Commission adopts an annual budget and sets the property tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year (FY).  A fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30th, which is why the commission usually adopts the budget in June.  A fiscal year is denoted by the calendar year in which the fiscal year ends.  For example FY 2017 ran July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017.  Accordingly FY 2018 runs July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018.

The Blount County Commission approved an annual budget in June of 2016 for FY17 that was $181,267,406 (see pages 105-107).  In June of this year, the commission adopted a budget for FY18 that is $195,958,364 (see pages 534-536).

Not all of this was an actual increase.  According to the county’s Finance Director (FD), Randy Vineyard, governmental accounting standards require some expenditures to be recorded twice.  Troy Logan, the fiscal administrator for Blount County School District told me that he couldn’t think of any expenditures that were recorded twice in the school’s budget.  Upon my request, FD Vineyard provided this spread sheet outlining the use of fund balance and the monies that are being accounted for twice.

According to the numbers provided by FD Vineyard, $5,381,930 is accounted for twice.  Based on these figures, that means that the commission adopted a budget that is $9,309,028 more than what it initially approved for the previous year, when the double accounting amounts are removed.  This is a huge increase for local government that will not be sustainable in the future without either growth in tax revenues or more tax increases.

The spreadsheet shows the county using $7,087,000 of fund balances from the various funds.  Some of the increase is for nonrecurring capital expenditures.  You can read my questions and FD Vineyard’s responses related to the use of fund balances here.  Please take the time to read this as it shows that $1.1M of fund balance may be used for corporate welfare for one company.

At the Agenda Committee meeting, I asked Mayor Ed Mitchell how much this secret company would receive from local governments (City of Maryville and Blount County) and the state of Tennessee.  He only knew what the county’s contribution will be.  Thus, local elected officials walk into these types of “deals” without knowing how much public money will actually be spent.

According to FD Vineyard the county’s General Fund grew to about $15M at the end of FY16 and an estimate for the end of FY17 had not been calculated in early June.  Property tax and federal inmate revenues may have been sandbagged in FY16.  Both came in higher than projected, and you were slammed with a higher property tax rate than necessary.  Some local elected officials may feel good about having accumulated such a large General Fund, but it came about as a result of two large tax increases (sales tax and property tax) not from being good stewards with your tax dollars.

$1.85M of fund balance will be used for Information Technology (IT) updates.  This is addition to the $4.1M that has already been spent for IT improvements and huge software purchases since 2014.  This new budget brings the total to nearly $6M that has or will be spent from 2014 through the end of June in 2018.

One would think that with such large expenditures that the IT Committee would be keeping a close watch on the various IT projects but it is not.  From June 2016 through June 2017 the IT Committee only met twice and during one of those meetings it lacked a quorum.  The Mayor canceled the other two meetings that were scheduled.

Blount County taxpayers will be forced to pay $96,717 in additional salaries and benefits to four office holders beyond the state mandated minimums.  These office holders are already some of the highest paid employees in county government and have been paid nearly double or triple the average salary of a Blount County citizen.

Chromebooks lease
The commission approved a 3 year lease agreement for Chromebooks for the schools.  I voted against this because the county will be paying interest when it does not have to.  The funds are available to purchase the computers without wasting any money on interest.

$1,272,000 loan to the schools
The commission, through the Agenda Committee, actually rejected a spending request from the schools in February.  This month the schools requested this money, for tennis courts renovations, once again along with more money for 3 additional capital projects.  The commission was asked to approve capital outlay notes that would be funded by using monies from debt service that will be loaned to the schools.  The county should be using the debt service fund to pay down debt rather than loaning it to be paid back at 2% interest.  Furthermore, the county has to pay a financial advisor and bond counsel to loan money to itself.  The better option would be to increase the amount of property tax going to the schools capital fund rather than a complicated loan transaction with fees and interest.

Medical plan changes
The commission voted to reduce the out of pocket maximum from $4,000 to $3,000 for health care and to charge $5 for the employee only dental plan.  The dental plan for the employee only is currently free.  The cost of the dental family plan is currently the difference between the price of the premium of the employee only plan and the family plan.  The dental family plan was also increases $5 and will become the difference between the employee only premium and the family premium, plus $5.  The county will be paying $22.14 a month for employees that are enrolled in either the employee only or family dental plans. These changes will take effect January 1, 2018.  The health care plans run the calendar year, rather than the fiscal year.

Interruptions continue
Commissioner Mike Caylor continued interrupting commissioners by twice declaring a point of order.  He appears to be abusing the power to raise a point of order to stifle discussion that challenges the status quo.

Up next:
The commission will look at hiring an architectural firm to renovate and/or expand the jail.

Blount County taxpayers are paying $96,717 more than state minimum for 4 elected officials

If the commission votes to approve the budget on its agenda next week, the taxpaying citizens of Blount County will be paying $96,717 more in salaries and benefits than the state mandated minimums for four elected officials.  Blount County Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher and Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick will make 10% above the state minimums.  Sheriff James Lee Berrong and Mayor Marvin Ed Mitchell will both make 32% more than the state mandated minimums.  The sheriff’s additional pay of $30,603 could be used to fund an additional deputy or give $1,000 pay raise to 30 employees.

You can view the state mandated salaries for the upcoming year, current year and prior years here.

During the last two annual budget discussions, I (Tona Monroe) tried to cut the salary supplements from the budget bringing the pay for these 4 elected officials down to the state minimums.  Both times only Commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voted to reduce the pay.  Last year Jerome Moon argued that the commission had to pay the sheriff more but did not state the law requiring an additional pay supplement.  These pay supplements aren’t required.

These salaries are double and nearly triple what the taxpaying citizens of Blount County are making.

Government officials salaries continue to grow by large amounts, reaping the fruits of the labor of the citizenry while pay in Blount County isn’t even keeping up with the rate of inflation.

Tennessee trial court judges are best paid in nation after cost of living adjustment.

Meanwhile the mayor, Governor Bill Halsam, Lord of Croynism Randy Boyd and Gentlemen of the Bedchamber Byran Daniels have been busy getting their pictures in the paper for job creation.  The local rag is happy to serve as their PR firm.

The Tennessee General Assembly has been largely nonresponsive to reforming salaries that are double, triple and quadruple the average annual salary.  Most of them don’t feel your pain.  Many voted for the gas tax and most voted for Haslam’s bloated budget.

  Proposed   state minimum   Salary Estimated Total Fund
Office 2017-18   (no supplements)   Difference Taxes    
Mayor – Mitchell 132,550 must make 5% more than Sheriff 100,416   32,134 6207 38,341 101
                 
Circuit Court Clerk* – Hatcher 95,635 other elected officials plus 10% for more than 1 court 86,941   8,694 1716 10,410 101
                 
Sheriff – Berrong 105,199 must make 10% more than highest general elected official (CCC) 95,635   30,603 5914 36,517 101
Workhouse* 10,520              
Juvenile* 10,520              
  126,238              
                 
Highway – Headrick 105,199 must make 10% more than highest general elected official (CCC) 95,635   9,564 1885 11,449 131

Figures provided by Angelie Shankle, Budget Manager for Blount County government.

May 2017 Commission Report

Open Records Policy
The majority of commissioners showed themselves to be overlords rather than servants of the people by adopting an open records policy with a process making it difficult for people to obtain their government records.  The policy speaks for itself.  Only those with disdain for the people they are suppose to serve would make it as difficult to obtain your records as this commission just did.  These people can claim they’re there to serve you but actions speak louder than words.

The policy was designed by an ad hoc committee comprised of 3 county commissioners and 2 citizens.  2 of the commission members, Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor, are local government employees who consistently support government of the government, for the government, and by the government rather than government of the people, for the people and by the people.

Copy fees
The ad hoc committee proposed charging 50 cents per copy, for both black and white and color copies.  The fee for black and white copies in the Schedule of Reasonable Charges produced by the state Office of Open Records Counsel, within the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, is 15 cents.  Jerome Moon, the Chairman of the committee that wrote the policy, took the extraordinary measure of changing the fee for black and white copies in the policy before presenting it to the commission.  Rather than respecting the process by proposing an amendment, he actually changed the policy that the ad hoc committee had recommended.

Commissioners Moon and Grady Caskey sponsored the resolution that adopted the open records policy.  These two falsely claimed in their resolution that the commission was adopting the policy as recommended by the ad hoc committee.  The fourth whereas statement in the resolution reads:

“WHEREAS, the Blount County legislative body finds that it is mandated to establish a written public records policy and hereby adopts and approves the proposed written public records policy as recommended by the ad hoc committee and attached hereto as Exhibit A.”

This is a false statement because the policy presented to the Agenda Committee, which consists of all members of the commission, was changed.  Commissioner Moon is the Chairman of the Blount County Commission.  He is well versed in parliamentary procedure.  There is absolutely no excuse for what he did.  All he had to do was present an amendment and explain his reasoning for the amendment.  Instead he changed what was presented to the commission.

Appointments for records inspections – take a number
From the Office of Open Records Counsel’s website, see the 3rd paragraph:

“Under the Tennessee Public Records Act, a records custodian cannot require a request for inspection of public records to be in writing. However, other provisions of law may permit or require such written request. A records custodian can require a request for copies of records to be in writing, or to be made on the Records Request Form, and to include that requirement in their public records policy. If a request must be on a specific form, a copy of the required form must be included in their public records policy and should be readily available for public use. If a governmental entity does not require a specific form, requestors may use the Records Request Form.”

The policy approved by the commission requires an appointment for records inspections, although a section below it makes it sound like it is the decision of the Public Records Request Coordinator (PRRC).

“IV. Inspection of Records

A. There shall be no charge for inspection of open public records. An appointment is required for inspection.

B. The location for inspection of records within the offices of Blount County Government should be determined by either the PRRC or the records custodian.

C. Under reasonable circumstances, the PRRC or a records custodian may require an appointment for inspection or may require inspection of records at an alternate location. The time for appointments should be made with in normal business hours unless mutually agreed upon by PRRC and the requestor.”

For clarity on the matter, I asked the Office of Open Records Counsel for its opinion on Section IV, Part A and Part C. This was the response I received:

“Good Afternoon Ms. Monroe:

I assume your question is regarding Section IV, Part A of the draft policy, which provides: “There shall be no charge for inspection of open public records.  An appointment is required for inspection.”  However, Part C of the same section provides that the PRRC may require an appointment for inspection of records “under reasonable circumstances.” 

Whether requiring an appointment to inspect the records is reasonable will ultimately be left to a court to decide, based upon the particular facts and circumstances of each case.  However, to the extent that a county’s public records policy provides a blanket rule that an appointment is required for the inspection of any records in any situation, we find it difficult to imagine that a court would find it reasonable to require an appointment for inspection under the facts and circumstances of each and every situation.”

To resolve the confusion and to reduce the burden upon those requesting records, I offered an amendment to remove the sentence in A that required an appointment for all records inspections.  This would have left in place the flexibility of requiring an appointment when circumstances warrant it.  The commission rejected this.  Only commissioners Akard, Archer, Miller and I (Tona Monroe) voted to resolve this issue.  If the county is ever sued over the matter of requiring an appointment, it will be the fault of the commissioners who opposed the amendment and voted for the policy.  They have sufficient knowledge to know that the matter needed to be resolved.

Proof of citizenship and a photo ID – Papers “please”
You will have to prove that you are a Tennessee citizen and may have to provide a photo ID for records request.  These two impediments can really slow things down.  This isn’t papers “please.”  This is papers demanded and just to see or obtain records.  Karen Miller and I were placed in an interrogation room at the justice center when a photo ID was demanded of me when I make a records request of the Sheriff’s Office .

I offered an amendment that would have required that proof of citizenship only be required when someone is requesting a fee waiver with their records request.  It was rejected.

Proof of citizenship should only be obtained to verify that the person receiving a waiver of fees is actually a citizen and once is it provided it should be destroyed. How is the county going to keep your citizenship and photo ID records?  These records may contain sensitive information that Blount County has no legitimate reason in demanding, other than to provide a waiver of the costs/fees to its citizenry.

A photo ID should not be required just to see or get copies of public records.  This is not Nazi Germany.

Requests request must go to Blount County Records Manager and Archivist
Jackie Glenn, the Blount County Records Manager and Archivist, will serve as the PRRC.  This concerns me because some years back I asked her to provide me with copies of some records.  She wrote that it would cost a couple hundred dollars to provide the records but I was able to make copies of the records for a few dollars on my own.  I hope that no one finds themselves in a similar situation where a request for copies of records turns into hundreds of dollars when the records can be copied for a few dollars.

Only Commissioners Akard, Daly, Miller and I rejected a policy that put in place with nearly as many unnecessary impediments to obtaining records as the courthouse clique could get away with.  While Daly was absent from the commission meeting, she voted against it at the Agenda Committee meeting.

Cutting commissioners off
It has become standard operating procedure for Commissioners Dave Bennett and Mike Caylor to call a point of order while I am speaking to shut me down.  This makes it difficult for me to do the job that I was elected to do.

Some have suggested that this is occurring because I am a woman.  It’s possible.  Commissioner Karen Miller has been questioned about her income and statements have been made about my employment.

A study of the Supreme Court of the United States of America (SCOTUS) found that women justices are interrupted more frequently than men by male justices.  Male advocates arguing cases are much more likely to interrupt than female advocates.  The article says, “gender is 30 times more powerful in explaining interruptions than seniority.”

Source: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-men-continue-to-interrupt-even-the-most-powerful-women

Agenda Committee meeting
Commissioner Dave Bennett was absent.

Commission pay raise rejected
Commissioners Ron French and Grady Caskey proposed giving the commission a pay raise.  Currently Blount County Commissioners make a salary of $405 a month.  There are no official benefits such as health care.  However, taxpayer funded meals are provided before and after some special meetings.  Additionally, some commissioners are county employees and already receive benefits from the county.

The proposal would have increased the salary to $450 a month and pay commissioners $200 for their attendance at the Agenda Committee meeting.  This would have increased the pay from $405 to $650 a month.

I offered an amendment to remove the $200 for attending the Agenda Committee meeting but that amendment failed.  Only commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller, Steve Sample and I supported the amendment.  Commissioner Tom Stinnett abstained.

The resolution failed in a 9-10-1 vote.  Commissioners Archie Archer, Brad Bowers, Shawn Carter, Grady Caskey, Gary Farmer, Ron French, Mike Lewis, Kenneth Melton and Jerome Moon voted yes to placing the resolution to increase their pay on the commission agenda.  Commissioners Mike Akard, Andy Allen, Rick Carver, Mike Caylor, Tom Cole, Dodd Crowe, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller, Tona Monroe and Steve Samples voted against sending the resolution forward.  Commissioner Tom Stinnett abstained.

This is a hot button political issue that gets a lot of attention but its best to view the voting records of commissioners in their entirety.  Some of the commissioners who voted against increasing their pay rarely, if ever, look out for you the taxpayers.

The issue was simple for me.  This is public service and I am not going to vote to increase my own pay.  I tried to turn down my commission salary but was forced to take it after great resistance on my part.

Commission meeting
Commissioners Cole, Daly and Lewis were absent.

Planning Commission appointment
The Blount County Commission rubber stamped Mayor Ed Mitchell’s latest nomination to the Planning Commission.  Some rural districts of the county still have no representation on the Planning Commission, despite it having authority to propose regulations that impact the rural areas of the county.  I was the only commissioner that voted against the mayor’s appointment.

$350,000 more for equipment for the Highway Department
The new Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick has gone on a spending spree, purchasing new equipment.  Previous equipment purchases totaled more than $1.4M.

This month the commission approved a request for $350,000 to purchase a new 8′ paver.  The county already has a 10′ paver.

The memo accompanying the request said that this will save the county money since the county will be able to do more of its own paving.  However, there were no documents or figures to support this claim.  Some counties contract this out as it costs less to pay companies to do the paving but I was cut off from fully expressing this and further reasons why I couldn’t support this issue.

Without any information to support the claim that it will save the county money, I wasn’t comfortable with spending the money.  I made motion to postpone this for a month so that the commission could be provided with numbers to back up the claim that this purchase will save money.  The motion failed.  Commissioner Akard made an amendment, which I seconded, to reduce the amount to $200,000 so that the county could purchase a used paver.  That failed as well.  The commission approved the purchase with only commissioners Akard, Miller and myself voting against it.

Road for Denso
Unfortunately, corporate welfare is ingrained in local and state governments.  Blount County government already spends $1,062,200 annualy on “economic development”, without the commission being provided any info on how the money is spent.  Commissioners aren’t even given a budget showing how this $1M will be spent.  After asking for the budget in 2015, Bryan Daniels of the Blount Partnership/Blount Chamber of Commerce/Industrial Development Board/Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority blocked me.

Despite spending $1M+ on “economic development”, the commission was asked to approve an additional $60,425 to build a road for Denso.  The letter from the Tennessee Department of Transportation accompanying the contract is dated September 16, 2016 but the commission was not told about this or provided anything until this month.

$1M is enough of your money for secret, crony, corporate welfare deals.  Only commissioners Miller and I voted against giving more of your money to another special deal.

I am all for business friendly tax policies but tax breaks should be fair to all and apply equally to similar businesses.  Giving one business the farm (literally), another a building, building a road for another, or a tax abatement for another should stop.  Tax policies could be written to provide incentives to all businesses, not just those that cozy up to the courthouse clique and the swamp in Nashville.

Watch out for Randy Boyd, who is running in the Republican primary for Governor of Tennessee.  He is the king of corporate welfare, having spent two years as the Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development.  During that time he traveled the state giving corporate handouts to businesses while he and local elected officials could get their pictures in papers for “creating jobs” with your money.  As such, 22 east Tennessee mayors recently endorsed him.  Multiple media outlets serve as PR firms rather than news reporters, promoting how wonder these special, secret deals are.  That’s how powerful the corporate welfare, special interests have become.  Boyd has been well groomed to be the next big government governor, next in line after Bill Haslam.

Highway Dept. agreement with 4 local cities
The majority of commissioners rubber stamped local agreements between the Blount County Highway Department and the cities of Friendsville, Louisville, Rockford and Townsend.  The agreements were simple, only 1-2 pages each.  However, there was no mention of liability for the parties.  I inquired as to who would pay for what should an accident occur and was met with silence rather than answers.  Only commissioners Akard, Miller and I voted against taking the risk of the unknown with these agreements.

Up next:
Budget
While there is no tax rate increase proposed in the upcoming budget, spending will increase.  The revenues recommend by the Budget Committee are available hereThe expenditures recommended by the Budget Committee are available here.

Local government elections

“The future has a way of arriving unannounced.”  George F. Will

In many of these monthly commission reports I encourage you, the public, to get involved.  The 2018 local government primary election is less than one year away.  All partisan elected officials in Blount County are Republicans.  Thus all county government races, with the exception of the school board and Property Assessor, were determined in the May 6, 2014 primary election and the races will likely be determined in the May 1, 2018 election.  School board races are nonpartisan and the Property Assessor election occurs in the same year as a presidential election.

If you are dissatisfied with the status quo, please give consideration to running and/or supporting good candidates for local office next year.  It is not to early to start preparing.

“A year from now you will wish you had started today.”  Karen Lamb

“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”  Will Rogers

State prison inmate cost is $76 a day while TN pays counties $37 a day

According to the Tennessee Department of Corrections, the average daily cost to house an inmate in state prison is $76 a day.  That is more than twice what the state pays counties to house state felons.  The state currently pays counties a daily per diem of $37.  It’s no wonder that the state is content with letting their felons be housed in local jails.  It makes their costs lower, their books look better and it frees up more money to spend elsewhere.

But don’t worry the state is here to help local governments out by increasing the daily per diem rate for housing state felons in local jails to $39 a day.  That’s a whopping $2 daily increase.  Never mind that, at $39 a day, the state still averages saving $37 a day.*  State lawmakers and officials need to be able brag about being good stewards of taxpayer money by keeping the state budget lower and having a $2 billion surplus of your money.

Some good news: statewide recidivism was down in 2016.

Source: http://tn.gov/correction/news/49926

*The cost savings to the state may be less in counties with a contract for state sentenced felons.

April 2017 Commission Report

Agenda and Commission Meetings
This was a light month for the Blount County Commission.  The agenda was short. There was a zoning request that was had no objections and the commission voted to approve its minutes and receive reports.

The only thing of significance that happened was the commission moved the regular meeting time of 7 PM to 4 PM.  This was likely because the Republican Party of Blount County scheduled its Lincoln Day dinner for the same night at 6 PM.  Commissioner Dave Bennett had the item placed on the agenda for the Agenda Committee but he wasn’t present at the meeting to explain his request.  He is the former chairman of the local Republican Party.

Would the all Republican commission change the meeting time for the Blount County Democratic or Libertarian Parties?  The Information Technology Committee meeting, which was scheduled for 6 PM the same night, was also canceled.  I was the only commissioner present to vote against catering to the local Republican Party.

Paper takes down a story related to jail expansion
Last month I wrote about the Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) cutting me off and not letting me do the job that I was elected to do: ask questions and get answers related to jail expansion in order to make an informed decision.  This month the paper removed a story from its website that it wrote related to my research and questions about this endeavor.

Blount County Tax Revolt, a local citizens group, asked me to come speak about the BCCP cutting me off and explain what I was prohibited from asking and what I had hoped to learn by asking questions.  A reporter for The Daily Times was present at the meeting and a story was written.  The story did not appear in the print edition but it was online with a link on the homepage of the paper’s website until the early afternoon when it was taken down.

The Daily Times has twice published that the Purchasing Department had an open meeting related to the jail RFQ.  This cherry picked reporting is a disservice to this community.  Most of the purchasing process related to the selection of a firm was done in secret because of a new state law.  It seems that the paper is more interested in publishing the talking points of the courthouse clique than it is evaluating a new law that made what was formerly an open process largely secret.  This law coupled with the actions of the BCCP have made my job more difficult than it should be.

At the March BCCP meeting, Purchasing Agent Katie Branham Kerr said that she would have to refer to her notes when I asked her who she had contacted in Loudon County when consulting references for the architectural firm Michael Brady Inc. (MBI).  I requested a copy of her notes and all communications records that she had with other governmental entities related to MBI.  Kerr informed me that she has no communications records related to MBI.

She says that she did contact someone at Loudon County regarding MBI but can’t remember who she spoke with or what office/department this person works in.  I checked with the Loudon County Mayor’s Office to see if anyone had any recollection of speaking to Kerr or anyone from Blount County related to MBI.  Anita Green with the Loudon County Mayor’s Office responded with, “I have spoken with several department heads and none have any recollection of speaking with anyone from Blount County.”

I’ll likely write more on this in the future.

Spectra Recycling Center to close
Blount County has been fortunate to enjoy having recycling services provided free of charge by a private company.  Spectra will be closing its recycling center on May 1st.  Spectra has provided recycling services free to city and county residents for 17 years.

While some recycling materials are profitable others are not.  The demand for glass is low and many governments that provide recycling services have stopped collecting it during garbage pick up.

In 2015, I served on an ad hoc committee that looked at recycling options for Blount County.  You can read the report issued by the chairman of that committee here.

If the county were to provide recycling, there will be costs associated with that service.  We had a valuable service being provided by a private business.  I don’t know if that service could have continued but I do wish that possibility had been fully explored before looking to provide a new county service.  Do you support using your tax dollars for the county to provide recycling?

Up Next:
Open Records Policy

The commission will soon vote on an open records policy.  Those who are interested in open government and obtaining or inspecting records will want to pay close attention to this.